When John the Baptist started preaching on the banks of the Jordan River, people got very excited. He became a real celebrity. He was a spectacle in his rough camel’s hair clothing cinched up by a leather belt. He supposedly lived on locust and honey, and some may have been hoping to see how he choked down those ugly insects. However, it was his rhetoric that got people’s attention.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
This is an opening line guaranteed to rivet the audience to its seats. John followed up with a call to repentance that some listeners considered insulting. If John spoke on television today, almost certainly someone would take offense. There would be an outcry that John was not sensitive to the needs and feeling of some hearers. John did not worry then, and if he were alive today he would not worry now, that anyone took offense at his words. John had a message for people that was so important that he could not be bothered to be sensitive. He wanted the people to be ready to receive Christ when Christ appeared. His call for descendants of Abraham to repent of their sins offended them, but they needed to be offended, because they were guilty of looking at the world the wrong way.
Dr. Rick Carlson, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, says that a better way to translate John’s call to repentance is to say that John demanded a “radical reorientation” of people. People needed to turn around 180 degrees and start seeing the world God’s way. He accused them of missing God’s mark, a high mark set for them as the chosen nation, and he said that the only way they would ever hit it was to turn completely around in their thinking and their worldview.
John’s message, startling as it was, was not new. God had been saying similar things to the people of Israel for centuries. Zephaniah spoke to people who were worried about their national security. Their world view was that God needed to do something and do it now to keep them from being crushed by more powerful nations. Zephaniah told them to stop worrying about that, because God already was their security. However, God’s worldview and their worldview were so radically different from each other that they would need to completely change their point of view in order to understand what God was doing for them. Through Zephaniah God said, “I will deal with all your oppressors,” and the Israelites thought, “Well, that take care of the Assyrians, and the Babylonians, and etcetera” because they did not understand that the greatest oppressor was Satan. Those other enemies were merely Satan’s way of assaulting them over and over. God promised to deal with Satan, and that victory would free the people from the real oppression they suffered because they thought life was not fair and they hadn’t received their share of the prizes. Zephaniah pointed ahead to the work Christ would do, just as John did.
Isaiah did the same thing. Just like John’s audience, Isaiah’s contemporaries were thirsty. They cried out like the woman at the well for fulfilling lives and the contentment that comes when people have everything they need. Through Isaiah, God promised “water from the well of salvation.” He promised the miracle of salvation for everyone with plenty for all and no shortage for anyone.
Paul, looking back at the work of Christ rather than forward, nevertheless called people to the same sort of reorientation. People need to be reminded and recalled to God’s worldview repeatedly. It is easy for us to be distracted by glamorous sights and wealthy displays and the constant message that we need and even deserve to get exactly what we want when we want it. Paul pointed people to a radical reorientation from the satanic worldview of self-worship to God’s worldview of trust in his provision. He said that the wealth others possess was not taken from anyone, and confiscating it by theft or taxation will not enrich anyone. God provides and God fulfills.
John’s startling message, right in line with his predecessors, was this:
Turn around and start seeing things God’s way. When you see things God’s way, you will realize what a mess you made of things, and you will tell him how sorry you are. Better yet, when you see things God’s way, you will start doing things God’s way.
And what would it mean to do things God’s way? John had an answer for that question:
Look here. If you see the world God’s way your actions will change. Your deeds will do fruit God is pleased with. If you aren’t bearing fruit, then you are deadwood, fit only to be thrown on the fire.
The question “What then should we do?” is answered with examples of the fruit:
Share food, clothing, shelter — whatever you have. Be honest with people. Show that you trust God, and be willing to live within his provision. Show that you trust that God has actually already provided what you need. Stop envying other people. Stop being greedy and worshiping yourselves. Worship God and see things his way. You will be happy.
Then John told them the real blessing that was coming: Christ the Lord. John made sure people knew that Christ was light years beyond his human advance man. John baptized with water that poured over people’s bodies. Christ would baptize with fire that would be the unleashing of God on the earth. John prepared his listeners for the day of Pentecost when the fire of the Holy Spirit would change them forever. Talk about radical reorientation!